Mum Shaming: why we’re all to blame for the global guilt trip phenomenon
by Emma Cownley
For me, it’s restaurants. Watching someone’s kid rolling around on a crowded restaurant floor or racing between the tables instantly has me scanning the place for its mother. I want her to know that her negligence has ruined my dinner. I want her to know that I disapprove.
I also disapprove when I see a screeching child placated with a packet of chocolate buttons or when I see a mum stuff a smartphone into their bothersome kid’s hand. It’s clearly bad parenting. They should be ashamed of themselves. But here’s the thing…
Every time I do this, I become more than just a disapproving bystander. I become a mum shamer. As it turns out, I’m not the only one.
First time mum and freelance copywriter, Chelsea Reay, says that before she had her daughter, mum shaming was an unconscious reaction.
“Sometimes you go out and you look at someone doing something and think, ‘I wouldn’t do that if it were my child’. I probably still do it to an extent! It’s like an automatic reaction. I have to check myself and say, ‘No, you don’t know that person and you don’t know what their story is, so pipe down!’”
In July of 2018, Chelsea published an open letter on her blog, apologising to all the mums she’d ever shamed. The blog is very telling of how drastically a person’s perspective and priorities can shift once the realities of parenthood set in.
“It’s so overwhelming and unexpected. As much as you prepare and you learn, there’s no substitute for the actual experience and there’s no such thing as a textbook baby,” she says. “I had loads of mantras for how I wanted to parent before I became one and nearly all of them I went back on. I didn’t want to bottle feed, but now I do. I didn’t want to give snacks between meals, but I do.”
Chelsea’s public parenting experiences have been largely positive, with the exception of one incident: “When my daughter was about 3 months-old, I was carrying her from the car park to our house and she didn’t have any socks on—she’d pulled them off in the car. Somebody wound down the window of their car as they were driving past and shouted, ‘Put some socks on that baby’ and drove off.”
This ‘drive-by mum shaming’ is just the start of a much bigger phenomenon. A 2017 report from C.S. Mott Children's Hospital found that almost two thirds of millennial mums feel they’ve been shamed for their parenting choices. Discipline methods topped the list of criticisms (70%), followed by diet and nutrition (52%) and feeding methods (39%). We feel entitled to openly question the parenting choices of others, often leading them to second guess themselves.
Chelsea said, “I had a few occasions where complete strangers came up to me in public and congratulated me for breast feeding, but no one ever said anything positive when I was bottle feeding, which really made me worry.”
“I had a friend whose baby was bottle fed from birth because her milk didn’t come in and she told me that she would always make her husband feed the baby in public because she was worried people would judge.”
So, why do we feel able to judge women so freely for their parenting choices?
I mean, think about it—there are dozens of factors to consider when caring for a child, including personal preference, personal circumstance, culture, ethnicity and the child’s unique needs. Why do we all assume we know best or that our opinions matter?
The answer may well be hard-coded into our genes.
Early humans relied on an entire tribe to ensure the survival and care of their offspring. Every member of the group had a hand in that child’s rearing, starting from the mother’s pregnancy, right through to the child’s junior years. There’s a good chance we’re all simply exhibiting the primal urge to communally parent a child.
Social programming and gender stereotyping may also have a part to play.
Women have been tasked with raising children for centuries—nesting, gathering and nurturing are traits they’re biologically coded to have. We’ve been conditioned to believe that parenting comes naturally to them because it’s what they’re made for. Women care for the children, men work for the money. End of.
It’s only when you look at the public’s attitude towards dads that you see the true extent of this conditioning. Chelsea’s partner is bemused at how often he’s congratulated by members of the public for performing simple parenting tasks, such as talking the baby out for a walk. “He doesn’t understand why he gets praised for something he should be doing,” says Chelsea.
Dan Olivier-Argyle, graphic designer and first-time dad, has noticed it too. He stays at home two days a week to look after his daughter and has actively tried to take an equal share of parenting duties: “I've been called ‘very domestic’ by a neighbour while walking with my daughter in her carrier, probably because I live in a rural village where more recent changes in gender roles haven't quite taken hold yet.”
He says, “From having conversations with male friends, I know that I do more than most men to help my wife and child, but our roles are far from equal where parenting is concerned. My mother explained to me that both my Father and Step-Father had little to no input when their children were very young, and that she did not expect them to.”
Social programming and gender stereotyping are more than just a root cause of maternal pressure. It can be argued that these constructs are the foundation for women-on-women shaming, vomited out as we explore how we want to parent our own children.
“Maybe you make those unconscious judgements because you’re thinking about having children and what kind of parent you’d like to be. You’re almost picking up these cues of things around you”, Chelsea says. “Maybe that’s how you create the fabric of how you want to parent or don’t want to parent?”
This leads us to the most painfully ironic point of all:
By allowing themselves to be shamed, mums themselves are feeding into the mum-shaming phenomenon.
When you combine the pressures of maternal perfection with the criticisms of the general public, you have the perfect recipe for mum guilt.
“I think mum guilt is a big thing, so it’s like mum shame comes from mum guilt. It’s your own internal battles that sometimes lead the way to a mental reaction to others,” says Chelsea. Women accept the shade we throw at them so readily that they interpret even the most innocent of looks or comments as shaming. It’s a vicious circle.
This begs the question:
How can we undo such ingrained mental conditioning and start supporting ourselves and our sisters?
As with most things, the discussion comes back to focussing on yourself and doing what’s right for you, rather than fretting over the opinions and choices of others. If you’re content and happy, the words and actions of others are less likely to have a negative effect—something both mums and the general public can work on together!
It also doesn’t hurt to offer up a kind word every so often. “If you see a parent out and about, just smile at them and say, ‘You’re doing a great job’,” Chelsea says.
It’s time we reprogrammed ourselves to start supporting parents with positivity and understanding so they can spend their energy on enjoying the experience of raising a child rather than wasting it on guilt and worry. The next generation will be better off for it!